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I held out as long as I could; I have never used a password vault, thinking that I could remember all of my passwords for several dozen sites and applications without having to trust them to any third party.
Of course, many of the passwords I used were reused a few times, and oftentimes I would have to ask a site to remind me of what my password was. I finally broke down and said okay, I was going to do it.
I signed up for the site that a trusted friend recommended; I even spent the $12 to get the premium service (mostly so that I could use multi-factor authentication with my Yubikey). I then downloaded the app to my laptop. I installed the app…
…and what happened next scared the wits out of me.
I should mention that I knew this was the case; I have in the past used tools to discover passwords on peoples’ computers (and on mine when I forgot them). So why was I surprised when the password app showed me a list of every site I have ever visited from this computer, with a button that said ‘Click here to display passwords’??
Yes, it is true. Unless you take special preventive measures, your computer saves every password you ever use; they are hardly even secured – this program did not take hours or even minutes to list them off, they were readily viewable in under ten seconds… including the passwords for my online banking.
How could this be? It’s simple… passwords suck. They are probably the best option that most of us have available to us, but they really do suck. Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) solutions like a Yubikey or smartphone authentication programs provide much better solutions, but there are problems with those – firstly they require you to have a device, and secondly they require the site (or application) that you are connecting to support their tool. So if you are connecting to YouTube (which is a Google site) you can use Google MFA; however if you are logging on to some random site where you participate in forums, there is a good chance that this will not be available to you, and you will have to use old fashioned passwords (see article).
The problem with passwords isn’t that they are hard to use, it is that most people do not use them correctly. That is a pretty broad statement, but if you are honest with yourself, how many passwords do you use that are over 90 days old? How many of your passwords are repeated across sites? Some password vault tools will let you run a test across all of the sites in the vault, and it is a cold splash of water in the face to run one of these tests and get a 32% score (yes, I am as guilty of many of these behaviours as everyone else).
For years I said the worst enemy of IT security was yellow sticky notes, and they still are. However it has gotten so much worse than ever, because every site wants complex passwords, and to get around the complexity rules people are using things like DogName1, then DogName2, and so on. I see stickers like the one shown more often than I care to say. The more often we have to change a password, the worse the situation will be. The problem grows exponentially when we have more sites forcing us to do the same thing. So if we have to change a password on ten different sites every ninety days, we are exponentially more likely to pick the same passwords, or derivatives thereof.
But is it reasonable to expect everyone to pick completely random, un-guessable passwords? Is *880638Z7965 a good, completely secure password? Probably not. For one thing, it is going to be impossible for us mere mortals to remember, and so we are going to write them down; for another, if someone gets access to your computer (or smartphone, or any device that you use to log onto whatever site you are trying to keep secure). Remember… if the Password Vault software can determine what your passwords are, so can the hackers.
I recently sent out an e-mail called The Ways of Small Business IT in which I highlighted some of the perils of a small business IT environment; one of the issues I highlighted was users leaving their unlocked workstations unattended. There are much more dire (and scarier) consequences to this behaviour than having your local information stolen. Simple programs installed from a USB key can reveal and steal every password you have ever used on the workstation – business, pleasure, banking, personal, dating sites… everything. So the miscreant would not have to sit at your computer for very long to own you – all they have to do is sit down for a minute and then walk away with all of your sites, usernames, and passwords. Then at their leisure they can access your life from wherever they want.
Scary? Yes. Preventable? Of course. A user who locks their computer when they walk away has taken great steps to prevent this attack. But what happens if the miscreant did not target your computer? What if they target a site where you use your catch-all password? Well it shouldn’t be a problem because that site will shut itself down until it has fixed its own security holes, right?
WRONG. The scary phrase in that last sentence is catch-all password. Here’s what I mean, and for the moment we are going to use the example of a site that we know to have been recently hacked.
Yeah I know you didn’t have an account, and you are completely faithful to your partner, but for the sake of the example, the user list on AshleyMadison.com is compromised. They have your credit card information, but that’s okay because your credit card is insured; they have your name and dating preferences, and that’s a damned shame… but there are fourteen million other men (and seventeen other women) who are in the same boat as you. It’s in the media and it’s ugly, and you are spending half of your time fighting with your partner that someone had used your credit card (and name, and picture, and your sexual preferences) to create their own profile on the site, and the other half of the time speculating about who else was on it, and… you know, doing whatever else you do during the day.
What you do not spend any time doing is changing the password on YourBank.com, YourTradingCompany.com, YourOtherServices.com, and so on. It doesn’t matter that you had been using the same password on those sites as you did on AshleyMadison.com, because… well, in truth you just never gave it much thought, and isn’t it just so much easier to use the same password everywhere so you don’t forget?
Now the bad guys have your password… and believe me, it isn’t tough to guess your username for all of those sites… especially since you also used the same password for your e-mail account, so what they can’t easily figure out they can easily ask all of the other businesses to resend it and the businesses will do it because the hackers asked from your e-mail account.
Is there a good solution? For businesses there are several… multi-factor authentication, soft tokens, and so on. For individuals? Well, there’s vigilance… and listening to people like me when we tell you not to use the same passwords, and not to write them down, and to change them frequently.
In my next article I am going to use a lot of the tools I discussed in this piece to demonstrate why your work laptop should only be used for your work resources.
This is NOT an article about my mother. She just happens to be the person at the other end of this conversation, but it could have been any house guest.
My mother has been staying with me for the past few days. It is the first time she has stayed with me, and it has been a learning experience for both of us.
One of the things that she had to get used to was that my TV is not set up in any useable way to anyone but me. I know, it’s a pain in the ass, but I live alone, and under normal circumstances the only person (other than me) who would ever use the TV is my son… and he is just as happy to let me log in for him.
I promise, someday I will get around to making the system more useable, but it’s just not a priority.
So this morning I had one foot out the door when my mother asked me ‘Oh… if I want to watch TV, how do I do it?’ The simple answer is… You don’t. Okay, you have an iPad, you can watch Netflix.
‘But why can’t you just show me how to use your TV?’
Well there are a couple of reasons for that, but the one I opted to go with was that I would have had to give her my password, which was my primary password for everything on my network. I could have gone with ‘I don’t have the time,’ or ‘I’m sorry, but the media device is very finicky and you would be calling me all day to ask questions,’ or ‘I don’t want you surfing my porn collection.’ No, I went with the password.
‘Oh, really… like I would use your password for anything other than watching TV. Really, I don’t even know how to use your computer!’
There are a lot of arguments that people could make in favour of sharing passwords… and they are all wrong. There is in my mind no legitimate reason why two people should share their passwords with each other… not when information security is an issue.
What do I mean by ‘Information security?’ Let’s look into this. If I were to give someone my password, what could they possibly do on my computer?
1. My banking credentials and information may be cached.
2. I have letters and documents that are extremely confidential. Some are personal, some are business, none are anyone’s business other than the people I share them with.
3. On my desktop there is a link that connects my personal PC to my corporate VPN. While I do not have my credentials cached, the extra layer of security provides Defense-in-Depth, which is eliminated by sharing my password.
4. My e-mail… In other words, anyone with my password could very easily send an e-mail in my name… to anyone.
5. My blogs are set up so that anyone authenticating to my PC can post to any of them… and that is not acceptable.
6. Oh come on… do I really need to go further?
So if I trust someone 100% should I be willing to trust them with my password? Well, I don’t trust anyone 100%, but that is not the question. In this case, even if I trust her 100%, we have to assume that my boss (who has never met her) doesn’t… and since some of the information that my password is protecting is my company’s, the answer is no, I should not trust them with my password.
Do I believe my mother would use my password for any reason other than watching TV? Frankly I do not. Do I think she is capable of getting into anything that she shouldn’t? Well, she does know how to use e-mail, so that is a possibility, but I do not think that she would.
The problem is not what I think she would do. The problem is this: What happens if I get back to my computer tonight, and something is amiss. What happens if something is missing, or changed, or whatever? Well the reality is that chances are it is from something that I did, but my first reaction would not be that. So why take the chance? Why risk losing the ability to trust my mother because of something that may or may not have been her fault? Simple… don’t put yourself into the position.
I connected my mother’s iPad to my wireless network, and she should be able to do anything she needs on that device… if she had the wherewithal to hack into my systems via wifi then I would be a sitting duck, but she doesn’t… in fact not only does she not have the ability, she also does not have the desire or malicious intent.
On the first page of the book The Sum of All Fears there is a quote that I have always liked. I thought it was a Winston Churchill quote, but as I looked it up on the Internet it looks like it is attributed to Benjamin Franklin. It is:
Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead
Is that true? Maybe yes and maybe no, but the only true way you can know for certain that nobody will share your secrets is by not sharing them with anyone else. Passwords are the same way.
I have been asked before if I have a password store in case I get hit by a truck. The answer is that I do not. Why not? There is nothing that I need people to access if I am dead. They can reformat my computer and all of my hard drives and use them to their hearts’ content… but the information is mine. I don’t need anyone logging into my Facebook or LinkedIn after I am gone, and with regard to my banking, well the executor of my estate will have the legal means to deal with the banks. Some information can die with me, and I am quite at peace with that knowledge. My blogs? Once I am dead the last post will have been posted, and they will remain there until WordPress decides to take them down. E-mail? Nobody needs to be notified of my death who cannot be notified by other means.
Passwords are private, and should remain so. The integrity of your data and systems and reputation relies on that. Sharing them with anyone is a bad idea, and if you disagree? Well don’t tell me I didn’t warn you!
This would never have happened with Windows XP.
As I always do after a long day of driving I woke up this morning and reached for my phone. I had driven 1,092kms the previous day, which meant that I spent my attention on the road and not on my phone – doubly so because it was a Sunday, and in my current role nothing earth-shattering ever happens on Sunday. I did, however, check my email during the occasional stop… and it worked.
This morning it did not.
My email password for my @microsoft.com email account was not working, but I wasn’t worried… I was sure that I would log on and find out that there had been some glitch in the system between 7:48am and 7:51am, and that all was well.
…and then it occurred to me that it has been roughly a year to the day since I got my account, and it was possible that it had expired – or worse, not been renewed.
I checked Lync. Lync works on an entirely different system than email, and it should work.
“We can’t sign you in. Please check your account info and try again.”
Crap… this is serious… I may, as of this morning, no longer be an @microsoft.com! That would be terrible for many reasons, not the least of which was that someone decided to shut me off without a conversation :(
When you log on to Windows 8 (or any version for that matter) Windows (Kerberos actually, but that’s another story) checks your credentials against an Active Directory Domain Controller. It happens every time. It doesn’t only check to see that your password is valid, it checks that your account is valid, and if your password is expired (or set to expire). It gives you plenty of notice too… it will start warning you two weeks or so before the expiry date so that you don’t miss it.
Unfortunately it does not work the same way when waking your system from sleep or unlocking your previously authenticated account. All it does is confirm that your account was valid when you last logged on, and that your password is correct. Kerberos does not go out to Active Directory for this, it just checks the locally cached credentials.
So what happens in a world where Windows is so solid that you almost never have to log off? In the last three weeks I have worked from the office in Mississauga, the office in Montreal, the office in Ottawa, several locations in Portland (Maine), and of course a weekend in Redmond and a day on campus… from hotel rooms, Internet cafes, and for 20 stressful minutes last week from the passenger seat of my wife’s minivan as we drove from Toronto to Montreal. At the end of my session I simply closed the lid to my laptop and put it away, or simply locked the screen.
In three weeks I have not had to log off my computer because Windows is so much more stable than it ever was.
The unfortunate and unexpected consequence to this, unfortunately, is that this morning rather than working from home as I had planned I had to come into the office because once that password expires you have to be physically connected to the internal network to change it… DirectAccess (one of the greatest tools ever invented for the purpose of working remotely) doesn’t cut it… because your credentials to connect are currently invalid!
So yes, my password expired. No, my account has not been disabled, and yes, you are going to have to put up with me for a while longer. However I hope you learn from my experience… if it’s been a while since you were prompted to change your password don’t wait… do it proactively so that you can work in your pajamas and avoid the Monday morning rush hour!
Many of you know that I am a fanatic about changing passwords and password complexity. I have written time and again about the subject. (See Pass the Word…)
I am also a big hater of what my friend Dana Epp refers to as ‘Security Theatre.’ I have often berated people at Rogers, AT&T, and a plethora of other companies who ask me ‘and for security purposes can you please tell me your date of birth?’ REALLY? IT’S ON MY FACEBOOK PAGE! How about you ask me what colour tie I wore to the last Black Tie event I attended, or what colour was the hockey puck we used when I played ice hockey?
I came across an article written by fellow Microsoft MVP Bill Pytlovany. I have never met Bill but he makes some very good points about answering security questions (my mother’s maiden name is Brown by the way) that people should keep in mind when answering these questions. Bill’s MVP Award is in Consumer Security, and I can see why. Enjoy the article! –MDG
How often do you change your online passwords? If you are like the vast majority of us then the answer is not nearly often enough. Until recently I fell into the same category, and fixing that took a little bit of doing.
One day several months ago I looked at Theresa and said ‘I think I am going to change all of my on-line passwords today.’ Easier said than done.
The first problem that I encountered was not an easy one – what passwords do I have? I figured I must have dozens if not hundred of on-line accounts. The not so simple task of creating a list of all of them was a task I was not looking forward to.
Like so many other things that I discuss, the old truism applies: If you cannot measure it then you cannot manage it. I had to figure out a way to start tracking my on-line accounts. Where should I start?
Of course there are easy ones – the low-hanging fruit. My Microsoft Account (formerly Live ID) is tied to dozens of sits from Microsoft Learning to TechNet to Zune and Xbox and everything in between, not to mention my primary e-mail account. By changing that password I immediately changed nearly half of the sites that I log in to. Unfortunately the rest of them would not be that easy.
I decided to take a measured approach going forward. I opened a text document on my laptop and named it passwords.txt. Of course this file is not going to have any of my passwords in it – I have a pretty good memory, but some people like to use password vault software like AuthAnvil Password Server, which allows individuals and organizations to centrally organize, synchronize, and audit their passwords. The only thing that I am keeping in my password text file is a simple list of all of the sites that I either have to type my password into or, in many cases, that I have logged into previously and clicked the ‘Remember my Password’ option in Internet Explorer.
I kept this text file open for several days and was alarmed at how long it was getting. The obvious ones are sites like on-line banking, social networking sites, and of course my blogs. The next tier were sites like ebay (and PayPal), amazon.com, and YouTube. Sites for my travel rewards points accounts (Aeroplan, AirMiles) came next, followed by things like DNS sites and Prometric.com (where I take my Microsoft exams).
After a few days I thought I was done, but just in case I saved the file to my desktop. In the meantime the real work started. I logged on to each of these sites and started changing passwords. Of course I did not use the same password for each site, and for my own peace of mind I will not explain how I chose. However I did make sure that all of my passwords were long enough and complex enough to thwart the average hacker (and onlooker).
Next I watched my Inbox. Many sites will send you an e-mail confirming that you made changes to the account. I skimmed through each one carefully for two items: 1) Do I need to take any action (click a link, etc…) to confirm that I actually did make the changes, and 2) Does it say ‘You changed your password to P@$$w0rd.’
The first wasn’t a problem – I took the necessary steps. However the second is more important; if any site sends you an e-mail with you password in clear text then you know that they are storing them that way (rather than using a one-way encrypted verification method). I flagged these sites and made a notation to never use the same password on these as I do on any other site. In the event that their site gets hacked not only would my account there be compromised, but you could be sure that the hackers would then try to use the same password against my account on other sites. VERY DANGEROUS.
As I went from site to site I made notations on my text file list. A dash next to an entry meant that the password has been changed; an asterix meant that the site e-mailed me in clear text. An ampersand meant that it is an account that I share with my wife (I don’t share any accounts with anyone else), and so before I change that password I should let her know what it is going to be, lest she get locked out of anything important.
While I thought I was done, I left the text file on my desktop. It does not take up a lot of real estate (especially since Windows 8 helps me to keep my desktop clean of shortcut icons), and I knew that as the weeks went on I would stumble upon the occasional site that did indeed slip my mind.
I dated the file and e-mailed it to myself; I set up an occurring calendar reminder telling me to change my passwords on a schedule. While not all of my credentials need to be changed as often as others, it is still important to change them all a few times per year. Now that I have the procedures in place, I will be able to do it without the anxiety that I faced the first time I went through it!
Earlier today I discussed the Picture Password and PIN codes in Windows 8. What I didn’t mention is that for non-corporate users (who will still continue to log on using domain accounts) you have a new option in Windows 8… and that is to use your Microsoft Account to log on to your system.
Of course, there are going to be people who do not want to do this, and that is fine… all they have to do is go to the Users page under PC Settings and click Switch to a local account.
My personal preference is to stick to the Microsoft Account… it means one less password to remember… and to remember to change every 4-6 weeks
Of course, just like in previous versions of Windows just anybody could not log onto your computer; an account had to be created for them first. Let’s assume for the time being that almost everybody out there has a Microsoft Account (previously Live ID, nee Microsoft Passport). You may remember it as your Hotmail address If not, then you have to go on-line and create one.
If they do have one, all you have to go is go to the same Users screen under PC Settings and scroll down… at the bottom of the screen you have the option to Add a user. Click on that, and when prompted type in the e-mail address of that person.
You don’t have to know that person’s password… but the first time they log on to Windows 8 they will have to be connected to the Internet to cache their credentials.
It’s as simple as that! You can share your PC with anyone, whether they use a local or a Microsoft Account. Each person, in turn, can use a password, PIN, or Picture Password.
- Windows 8 Support is Here! (garvis.ca)
Today is the day… My first article went live at Oakville.com, and that is very exciting for me. It is great to be able to give back to the community where I live… that I have called home for the past five years.
It is amazing… the first time I spoke with my wife (Theresa) – we met on-line – she said that she lived in Oakville, and I said ‘Where’s that?’ I had moved to the Greater Toronto Area (more specifically Mississauga) two months earlier, and although I had heard of Oakville had no idea that it was ten minutes away down the 403 (or QEW… or Burnhamthorpe… or Dundas). Now, nearly five years later, I consider it home, and do not want to live anywhere else.
So for my introductory article I wrote (as promised) about password security. I hope you read it and like it! –M